Criticising All You See*

Uninformed OpinionsWhenever a major news story comes out, people weigh in with their views. That makes sense in a society that supports freedom of expression. And in today’s world of instant communication and social media, it takes very little time before people from all over the world have their say on stories.

On the one hand, I don’t think many people would say we shouldn’t have the right to speak our minds. On the other, the price for this is that people sometimes do so before they have all the facts. And that can make it much harder to get to the truth about something. It can also make things terribly difficult for the people involved in such news stories.

That said, people do share their opinions, sometimes quite publicly, and that can add an interesting layer of tension to a crime novel. It also makes for an interesting point of conflict.

Even before the days of the Internet, people spoke out publicly, whether or not they had all the facts. Agatha Christie, for instance, uses this plot point in several of her stories. To take one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to look into a case. James Bentley has been arrested for murdering his landlady. There’s evidence against him – enough, in fact, that he’s been convicted. But Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. He wants Poirot to investigate and find out the truth before Bentley is executed. Poirot goes to the village of Broadhinny to learn what actually happened, and very soon discovers that popular opinion is very much against Bentley. Everyone assumes that he is guilty, and many people are surprised that Poirot is even interested in the matter. There are those who claim they always ‘knew’ Bentley was dangerous, and plenty more who are happy to give Poirot their opinions as to Bentley’s guilt. But there’s more to this case than a misfit lodger who killed his landlady, and Poirot soon finds that more than one person might have had a motive to kill Mrs. McGinty. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs… 

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen decides to take some time away to work on his writing. So he travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he plans to stay in a guesthouse owned by the town’s social leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen’s visit naturally puts him in contact with the Wright family; and he learns a sad part of their history. John F. and Hermy’s youngest daughter Nora had been engaged to Jim Haight; in fact, the guesthouse in which Queen is staying was intended as their first home. But Haight left town suddenly, jilting his fiancée. When he returns just as suddenly, everyone is already prejudiced against him. But Nora is determined to renew her relationship with him, and to everyone’s dismay, the couple marry. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary comes to Wrightsville for an extended visit. On New Year’s Eve, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Haight is arrested for murder, and people are soon very quick to voice their opinions, both verbally and in letters to the editor of the local newspaper. One opinion builds from another, and the outcry becomes so intense that Haight’s attorney Eli Martin has a very difficult job assembling his case. In the end, the only people who believe that Haight might be innocent are Queen and Nora’s sister, Pat. And they work to find out who really committed the crime.

There’s a similar sort of ‘fanning the flames’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. When Tom Robinson is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, there’s an immediate public reaction. Without knowing any of the real facts involved, everyone assumes that Robinson is guilty. It doesn’t help matters at all that he is Black, and Mayella Ewell is White. Word spreads quickly and Robinson’s life is at risk. But local attorney Atticus Finch isn’t convinced that things happened the way everyone thinks they did. He takes Robinson’s case and digs more deeply. His job is made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone’s sure of what happened, without having actual information. Oh, and talking of Harper Lee….her new novel Go Set a Watchman is due to be released on 14 July. I’m proud to be co-hosting a blog tour to celebrate its release. You can check out the details right here, and get involved if you’d like.

In the US, one of the big questions people have weighed on is what really happened to President John F. Kennedy. Despite the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in that murder, people have voiced all sorts of views, including views not supported by facts. The same is true for the famous O.J. Simpson case. Editorials, blogs, books and articles have been written on that case; it’s still a subject for discussion over twenty years later. And people are still convinced one way or the other without always carefully reviewing the facts.

One of the clearest examples of people having their say has been Australia’s Lindy Chamberlain case. The 1980 death of Lindy Chamberlain’s daughter Azaria sparked a major outcry and a great deal of media interest. The question of whether or not ‘Lindy did it’ was a very hot topic for a long time. And it’s found its way into a few books in which we see that theme of people sharing their opinions regardless of whether they’re informed.

One of them is Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, Jodie Evans Garrow has what seems to be the perfect life. She’s smart and attractive, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. Everything changes when her daughter is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even her husband, knows about the child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse can find no formal record of that. Now the gossip starts. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, what happened to her? If she is dead, is Jodie responsible? The outcry gets louder and more public, and Jodie becomes a social pariah. And a lot of vitriol comes from people who don’t have the facts. Interestingly, in one scene, Jodie is invited to a book club meeting at which the group is discussing a book about the Chamberlain case. We do learn the truth about Jodie’s first baby, but it’s despite, not because of, public views.

There’s an oblique reference to the Chamberlain case in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. When Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson report their infant son Noah missing, there’s a huge amount of public support for them at first. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, editorials and more urge the return of the baby and express sympathy for the couple. But when questions come up about the incident, the tide of public opinion sways. Before long, people begin to be sure that Joanna had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now social media outlets burst with condemnation and worse. We do learn what really happened to Noah, but it’s no thanks to the uninformed blog posts, comments, Tweets and so on.

And that’s the thing about having a say. It can lead to all sorts of heated debate, informed or no, about a case, event or person. And sometimes that means one’s got to wade through all sorts of commentary to get to the truth.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Back Chat.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Helen Fitzgerald, Wendy James

28 responses to “Criticising All You See*

  1. In another Agatha Christie, Moving Finger, Miss Marple makes good points about gossip and poison pen letters – she draws useful conclusions from what the letters *don’t* say. And there is some discussion of that annoying phrase ‘No smoke without fire’, which can be used to justify all kinds of wrong thinking….

    • That’s quite true, Moira. That expression really is dangerous in that way. And I like the way Christie uses talk (as well as those letters) to show just how wrong thinking can be when people believe gossip. In that sense, it reminds me just a bit of Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. The same point is made that poison pen letters fan the proverbial flames, and on that score, can be very dangerous.

  2. It seems the trend today is for television media to spread every rumor as soon as it becomes available, just to beat the competition. It’s appalling. I dread our upcoming election cycle as the rumors start circulating about the candidates.

    It’s an interesting side note that I just finished reading the classic Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Most of the story is told in journal entries and letters in which the main characters carefully enter events and conversations to make certain they all had access to the truth as they searched for Count Dracula and destroyed him. It’s the rare story when such effort is taken to avoid mistakes and rumors.

    • That’s quite true, Pat. Dracula is painstaking in the sense that the characters work very hard to make sure they all have the facts. I’m glad you brought that up.
      And I’m not looking forward to the campaign either. Already people are looking for reasons to discredit the candidates as people instead of really considering their proposals. Not only does that take away from the important work we have to do to choose our leadership, but it also drags the whole debate down to the level of mud-slinging. As you say, it really is appalling how quickly gossip gets circulated, even by ‘news outlets’ who ought to know better and present only facts that are verified.

  3. I’ve just read the new Mark Billingham book, ‘Time of Death’, which looks at the story from the perspective of the family of the accused – with the media camped outside the door and the people in the town having all made up their minds as to his guilt. The book itself had some problems, but that aspect of it was interesting, seeing the thing from a different angle.

    In real life, there have been a couple of cases over here recently where the media and public have condemned someone with no evidence, and I’m afraid even when the real culprit is caught, some people still hang on to the belief that ‘there’s no smoke without fire’… (Is it really over 20 years since OJ?? I feel ancient all of a sudden!)

    • Yes, FictionFan, it really is over 20 years since the OJ case. I feel old, too… You’ve raised an important point, I think, about the lingering effects of having one’s say without knowing the facts. Even if the police do catch the actual guilty person, and that person is duly imprisoned, etc., that doesn’t make it go away for anyone suspected. There are always stories that swirl around, along those ‘no smoke without fire’ lines. And an awful lot of the time it’s because people listened to those who didn’t have accurate facts when they spoke their piece.
      Thanks for mentioning the Billingham. It really must have been interesting to see the case from the perspective of the accused’s family. In thinking about real-life cases I know about, it must be awful to be a family member of someone who’s suspected of a crime. As though the non-stop media attention weren’t enough, there’s the real question of whether, say, there might be a killer in the family.

  4. Col

    Interesting subject and it resonates particularly when I can think of some fairly recent examples,in the UK, where people get tried in the court of public opinion…..nudge, nudge, wink, wink – a character assassination and a reputation ruined.

    • That’s the thing, Col. As soon as a person’s character comes into question, no matter what the ultimate outcome, her or his reputation risks ruin. It doesn’t really matter what the truth is. Once people have had their say, that’s all it takes.

  5. Kathy D.

    Hmmm. What a topic. I do think sometimes the phrase “where there is smoke, there is fire.” is true. Look at “Bridgegate” in New Jersey. The deeper the investigations go, the more comes out even though the cover-up was quite extensive.
    It’s always good when there are investigations and sometimes a cover-up continues. I don’t think the last page has been written on JFK’s assassination. Even though the Warren Commission issued a report, other information has come out since, as in individuals’ memoirs about JFK.
    The movies “Selma” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” reveal some truths about the role of various presidents in relation to the civil rights movement. So have the PBS films on the 1963 March on Washington, Freedom Summer, etc.
    The more truth that comes out, the better.
    And isn’t this what crime fiction does? It uncovers the truth about murders, conspiracies, cover-ups, etc. And sometimes it’s about real events, told in fictional formats, as An Officer and a Spy about the frame-up of Dreyfus.
    Emile Zola played a great role in that as did another soldier.
    Eva Dolan, a great new author, uncovers the truth about deaths of migrant workers in England in Long Way Home, and about the killings of migrants and the relationship of right-wing politicians to violent right-wingers in Don’t Tell Tales.
    But we read of crimes unraveling and truths coming out in mysteries. It’s what we like to see. So, I’d think we like to see it in real life, too.

    • There are definitely cases, Kathy, where there’s more to a story than it seems on the surface. And there are definitely cases that need to be investigated more thoroughly. This, at least to me, is where responsible journalism and so on come in. In those cases, we need to go beyond the gossip and things that people are ‘sure they know,’ and find out the actual facts. As you say, the more truth comes out, the better.

  6. It must be really difficult for an accused ( who is presumed innocent until proven guilty) to get a fair trial these social media days.

  7. Margot: Defending Jacob by William Landay is about the experience of a family in which a prosecutor’s teenage son is accused of murder. It is an ordeal. There is often little purpose trying to dispel rumours.

    We have always lived in a world that seeks simple answers to complex events. Yellow journalism is not a 21st Century invention. If millions of people did not read tabloids they would not exist.

    • You’re quite right about that, Bill. If there weren’t a market for tabloids, they would indeed not exist. And I think people do want easy, quick answers and solutions. Sometimes, as you say, the cases/events/etc. don’t allow for that, but people want it, anyway. And that’s how the gossip and stories start. And when that happens, as you point out, there’s little point in trying to quell those stories. They do complicate cases though, and Defending Jacob is a good example of that. Thanks for mentioning it.

  8. Keishon

    Twitter and most of social media is a hot bed for misinformation that can escalate things into mob activity. I’ve never been a fan of passing along rumors and other inflammatory material. When social media becomes mob like, I sign off. I don’t like to jump to conclusions until I hear all the facts first. Even after all the facts are laid out, I share my opinions on 99% of stuff offline with friends and family. That works better for my blood pressure and my sanity.

    You have some great recommendations in your post, Margot, to illustrate your points and I enjoyed reading it as usual. You’ve reminded me that I need to read Ellery Queen.

    • It is interesting, Keishon, how social media such as Twitter just seems to engender that kind of mass reaction. I wonder whether it has something to do with the anonymity you get on those media outlets. I think it may be easier to go to extremes when you don’t have to do so in a face-to-face environment. Like you, I prefer to get all my facts before I come to conclusions; even then I’m very reluctant to share most of them publicly. Oh, and I do recommend reading Ellery Queen. Some of the stories are terrific mysteries.

      • Keishon

        The lack of face-to-face interactions plays a big part of it too I think but I’m not a sociologist even though I play one online (heh). I’m for anonymous free speech but some of it can and does go over the line.

  9. Margot, quite an interesting topic. It seems now days the presumed innocent until proven guilty no longer applies. I know social media does a lot of good, but it also has a lot of negative aspects. Always enjoy learning about different elements of books from you.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you’re absolutely right about the presumption of innocence. It’s harder and harder to maintain that as more and more people speak their minds on social media.

  10. Margot, in my opinion “the world of instant communication and social media,” as you rightly put it, is increasingly making people intolerant and highly critical of each other’s views, and I find that very unnerving. Not that I used to, but I no longer air my views on controversial issues like religion and politics in public forums, and especially social media. I find that it’s just not worth losing my peace. There are so many interesting things to talk about, like books, for instance.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Prashant. There are so many interesting things (books, films, and so on) that give us common ground for good conversation. All too often, especially on social media, people are quite intolerant, and don’t take the time to get accurate information. Then they become harshly critical of others, without considering those points of view. I would be the last one to say that we should not debate important issues. We need to do that. But a productive debate requires having respect for others’ views and gaining an understanding of the relevant facts. Not everyone is willing to do those things.

  11. Kathy D.

    A lot of the hostile comments are written anonymously on line, some of it just awful. I do think that people should take responsibility for what they say. Just terrible misogynistic, bigoted or just angry remarks done under cover of anonymity. I think that’s wrong and that website coordinators should insist of names.
    But as far as news goes, the public is entitled to the truth and the more said in the news or at reliable blogs, the better. And cover-ups are rampant, so much the need for good, investigative reporting. But it’s amazing what is not reported and then suddenly — a new report or book is out which reveals a lot of what’s behind the scenes, which the public is entitled to know.
    And there are many good TV news commentator shows which bring a lot of news not seen in major press.

    • It’s true, Kathy, that people sometimes use anonymity as a ‘cover’ for horrible remarks, bullying, and so on. There’s a huge debate, as you know, about whether or not anonymous comments should be permitted online. That’s one argument against them.
      As you say, sometimes news stories don’t tell the entire truth about something. It may not even be because the journalist is deliberately covering something up. It may simply be that certain information is held back or simply not available. It’s always interesting to see what aspects of a story come up later, when more investigation is done…

  12. I have mentioned here that I avoid the news. I miss a lot of news I would be interested, but I also miss this type of thing. People have always been like this, but with the speed of communications today, it can have ill effects. I feel sorry for people who have to live through such incidents.

    • I do too, Tracy. You’re right that there’ve always been people who sound off on their opinions with no facts. But with today’s instant social media, it’s easier than ever to do so, and to do so very publicly. I don’t blame you one bit for wanting to avoid the news…

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